“The Purple Martians are coming.” She said. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Purple Martians?” “Yes…my father is getting a house ready for them in the back yard. He also keeps a place for them out on his farm.” She said with a smile on her face. I was beginning to think that my friend’s father was in some kind of weird UFO cult when she explained to me that Purple Martians is what he called the Purple Martins that came around this time of year. I still didn’t know exactly what she was talking about. Then she explained that the Purple Martin was a kind of a bird and there was a large avid group of “landlords” in the area that build housing for them as they migrate north from South America every spring.
Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America. They are about 7 ½ inches long and weigh about 1.9 ounces. They spend the non-breeding season in Brazil and migrate to North America to nest. It seems that over the years they have grown dependant on humans for their habitat. One theory is that they began by nesting in abandoned woodpecker holes and then became adapted to the hollowed-out gourds that the Native American Indians left out for them. Today Martins are wholly dependant on man-made dwellings. If humans were to stop providing them with housing and condos, they would probably become extinct.
Purple Martins pair bond into a life-long monogamous relationship. The male and the female cooperate equally in building the nest out of mud, grass, and twigs. After the female lays her eggs, she incubates them for about fifteen days. After the young birds hatch, the parents feed them for about a month while they fledge. They are still dependent on their parents for food for a couple of weeks after that. In the St. Louis area, they are also dependant on those large white birdhouses that you see on poles in people’s backyards and in city parks from time to time.
Martins, like all other swallows, are insectivores. They eat only flying insects that they can catch in flight. Their diet consists of dragonflies, flies, midges, butterflies, moths, bees, and a wide variety of other flying insects.
But life can be hard for the birds. They are vulnerable to predators and sensitive to certain environmental conditions. There is a group in the St. Louis area, the Purple Martin Conservation Association, which is dedicated to helping people establish habitat for the birds. The birds have recently returned to nest in Forest Park after being gone from there for a long period of time.
What can people do to help the Purple Martins? There are four important things to keep in mind:
Erect Martin housing away from trees, where the birds can approach it from an open area, preferably on three sides. Make sure the housing has Starling resistant entry holes. It seems that these birds will get into the nests and break the eggs and kill the chicks and adult Martins. Predator guards on the poles will keep raccoons and snakes away from the birds. Sometimes a late spring can affect the number of flying insects around and the birds will quickly die from lack of a food source. Some “landlords” purchase crickets or mealworms from pet shops and bait stores and fling them up at the birds.
Purple Martins are nice to have around. They are a natural way to eliminate flying insects and their song is beautiful. It’s also nice to know that by providing housing, you have played a major part in the bird’s survival. You can find out all you want to know about Purple Martins by visiting www.purplemartin.org